The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College’s first biennial Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership (May 2013) attracted 188 entries from across the U.S. and 22 other countries. Three global prizes ($10,000) were awarded. The January issue of BeLight featured articles on two of the organizations that won awards: The Dalia Association and Language Partners. This issue features the third global prize winner: Restaurant Opportunities Center.
It was September 11, 2001, and Fekkak Mamdouh remembers having the morning off. He was to return to work that afternoon as a waiter at the Windows on the World restaurant, perched on the top floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Of course, his job was the last thing on his mind as he watched the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that day. He had been in the restaurant the night before, working a late shift. He feels lucky to be alive, but mourns the loss of 73 of his fellow workers who died. More than 350 other workers at the restaurant lost their jobs.
“They were my brothers and sisters, and they died,” says Mamdouh, a native of Morocco. “I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to honor their memory. A movement was needed.”
Advocating for better pay and working conditions for his fellow restaurant workers—the bussers, wait staff, cooks, and cleaners—was the way Mamdouh and others felt they could assure that those who were lost became memorials to the betterment of all who work in food service.
Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was born. And for its effort to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers, the organization earned one of the three $10,000 awards in the 2013 Kalamazoo College Global Prize for Collaborative Social Justice Leadership administered by the College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.
Mamdouh is one of ROC’s co-directors.
The restaurant industry, he says, is a behemoth in the United States economy (employing 10 million workers) and one of the only industries that grew during the Great Recession. It’s also home to seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America, including the two absolute lowest.
Restaurant servers in the U.S. have three times the poverty rate of other Americans and use food stamps at double the rate of their fellow workers across the nation. It is not uncommon, says Mamdouh, to find restaurant workers around the nation who are homeless.
The issues don’t end there, he adds. Ninety percent of workers in the industry have jobs with no paid sick days, and two-thirds admit to working while sick. Matters of race and class also abound. Workers of color earn on average $4 less than their white counterparts and are often segregated from the best paying jobs at restaurants. Many wait-staff work for much less than minimum wage, averaging about $2.13 and hour.
“It’s usually like this: ‘If you don’t like the job, if you have a problem with what’s gong on, then go home. We can replace you,’” Mamdouh says. “That’s the way a lot of owners approach things. But we have a right to a fair, equal, and dignified workplace.”
In response to these challenges to fairness and equality, ROC organizes around three strategies: 1) Foster workplace justice campaigns that develop leadership skills of workers at high-profile restaurant companies to win policy changes and economic benefits; 2) Promote companies that are taking the “high road,” providing their employees with better wages and benefits than the industry standards; and 3) Support national research and policy development, that becomes the basis for local, state, and federal policy.
ROC has grown rapidly in New York City and across the country. It now counts more than 10,000 members in more than two dozen U.S. cities, and has chapters in Canada and Japan. During the next five years, they hope to count two million members in their ranks.
“This Global Prize from Kalamazoo College makes us more well-known. It increases our exposure,” Mamdouh says. “It’s going to help us a lot, and we can use it as leverage for more fundraising. But it’s more than money. It’s recognition by a wonderful organization that we are fighting the good fight.”
“We are growing leaps and bounds,” he adds, “But there are always struggles to overcome.”
In many ways, it starts with the consumer. No one would want a sick person cooking their food or a wait staff member berated and humiliated by their manager, then asked to put on a happy face, according to Mamdouh.
“Ten years ago no one cared about free-range this or organic that. Now people demand it. They can demand the same of restaurant owners, that they treat their employees with dignity.”
Restaurant Opportunities Limited has helped open restaurants under the nameplate “Colors” in New York City that is worker-owned and operated, serving as a positive, supportive learning environment for those who want to enter the restaurant industry. But the well-regarded restaurants also are destinations where customers can see how workers are supposed to be treated.
“Come down and see how it’s supposed to work,” Mamdouh says. “The food’s pretty good, too.”